Serious About Play

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UW Tacoma Lecturer Tony Perone uses play in the classroom to encourage learning and development.

Tony Perone is a clown. This statement isn’t meant to be pejorative; the UW Tacoma lecturer has a another life as a clown. We’ll come back to that later. You’re probably wondering why the author chose to lead with that information if he wasn’t going to provide details. Well, the writer of this piece is honoring Perone’s work by being just a little playful.

“Why can’t this world be a playful place?” said Perone. “Why is it that play is only relegated to either being a five year-old, a hobbyist or a retiree? Why can’t learning, developing, creating scholarship be a performatory, revolutionary activity for us all?”

Perone teaches courses in the Social, Behavioral and Human Sciences division of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. He came to UW Tacoma in 2014 after completing his Ph.D. in educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “There was no ten-year plan or Ph.D.-by-30 kind of thing,” said Perone. “I don’t encourage development to be performed that way as a teacher of human development and I don’t try to live my life that way.”

Now, when Perone says play, he isn’t referring to cartwheels in the classroom. Then again, if blowing bubbles helped a student better process a concept then why not? “My teaching is informed primarily by saying we need to create new ways of learning and developing,” said Perone. “Students in my classes design their own choices for what they want to do.”

If we're not stretching our comfort zones, development doesn't happen.” 

There are limits to this freedom. Perone has regular check-ins with students to help them fully realize their idea in a way that both meets course requirements and fosters students’ learning and development. Perone shows the same flexibility inside the classroom with his own lesson plans. “We did a talk show once and we had people performing as development theorists like Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky and Erik Erikson,” said Perone. “Play is a powerful way to help us create context rather than just receiving or inhabiting context.”

Perone has a long history of incorporating his love of theater—specifically improvisation—with his passion for teaching. He did his undergraduate work at Cornell. “I did the equivalent of the self-designed arts and sciences major we offer here,” said Perone. “I was required to design a senior project.” Perone developed a course that helped adults in the community learn English. “I was able combine my interests in language, linguistics, theater and the arts,” he said. “There were no worksheets, no lectures. We created plays, we did theater games, we did mime and other activities.”

A native New Yorker, Perone moved to Chicago in 2001 to study improv. He studied at Second City, the famed improv theater that has a long list of alumni including Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey. “I didn’t become an improviser so I could get on Saturday Night Live,” said Perone. “I was interested in learning more about how people collectively and emergently create new ways of doing things.”Perone is a board member of The Association for the Study of Play. He is also an associate at the East Side Institute, a research center for developing and promoting alternative and radically humanistic approaches in psychology, education and community building.

It’s fair to say that Perone is serious about play. He’s part of Performing the World, a biennial event in New York City that uses performance to address social issues. “This event brings people together from around the world to share, for instance, how they’re using play and performance to address violence along the border between Mexico and the U.S. or how they’re honoring Ugandan children orphaned by HIV.”

Patch Adams is part of Performing the World. The physician made famous by Robin Williams is also an author, social activist and humanitarian clown. Perone got a chance to work alongside Adams this past summer in Costa Rica.  Perone spent a week clowning in underserved communities in Costa Rica. The goal was to make people laugh but also to create a connection. “We’re there to bring a smile, for sure, but here’s the kicker: we also want to build relationships where I as the clown also smile.”

Being a clown is more than make up and a red nose. “I’m interested in humanitarian clowning, in the ways it can break down alienation and create a more loving, healing space,” said Perone. To this end, Perone is doing what he calls “ethnoclownography.” The idea is to talk with different clowns about their approach to the craft. “I’m a clown learning from other clowns about the potential of clowning for social and community change,” said Perone.

Back at UW Tacoma, Perone is working with Associate Professor Beverly Naidus and Assistant Professor Ed Chamberlain on a community arts project. The event received funding from the Chancellor’s Strategic Initiative Fund. “We received a three-year grant to create an annual arts project,” said Perone.  This year’s “Arts Bridging Communities” will take place at UW Tacoma May 10 through May 12. There will be workshops and performances all tied around the themes of healing and reviving.

If Shakespeare was correct and "all the world's a stage" then that makes us all performers. Perone has a number of roles from educator to activist to improviser to clown. “We are continually creating our lives,” he said. This point of view has the potential to change what it means to be a student. “Instead of saying, ‘I’m not good at college, why am I here,’ the playful, performatory lens encourages us to be a performer and perform college,” said Perone. “Perform being an undergrad. It’s all creating and performing new stages of development.”

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / May 2, 2018
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or